Eshe Parlan, Femella
“Will that be the travellers’ hall . . . or a single?” asked the man with the keys.
Eshe answered without hesitation. “A single room please.”
A woman with bright orange hair appeared beside the man. She seemed to roll herself around the tapestry that filled, completely, a wide stone arch. She called to behind the curtain, “Ey, girls! Horenza!”
A gaggle of women spilled out from behind her, none young enough to be addressed as a girl, even in fawning. And of all the ways of dressing a kirtle, every one of these women had laced them tightly beneath their breasts. They all wore their faces painted, too. Were they dancers, actors, some part of the local chorus? Did they have the town chorus in Rothi?
“Ey, Pertho,” the henna-haired woman said, “don’t take `er up yet. Let’s first get to know `er.”
Pertho, the man with the keys, stopped with his hand on the tapestry, one foot on the stairs. Like a hound-pack circling and closing, the women crowded around her. Eshe felt equally as threatened.
“So what’s yer speciality, ay? By the way, I’m Kilda,” the henna-haired woman said. “And you are?”
“I am staying a single night,” Eshe said. “I am not—”
“I am not, I am not – will yer listen to that. Booked `er into a single did yer, ay, Pertho?”
Eshe refused to cast beseeching eyes. And anyway, Pertho said nothing.
“So what’s yer speciality, ay?” this woman, Kilda, persisted. “Must have a speciality; we’ve all our specialities – don’t we, girls. And it’d better not be the same as any we’ve got.”
“I am sorry – Kilda, did you say? Apparently you have me mistaken. I am not a performer. I’m just here for one night.”
Kilda nodded, excessively exaggerated, a good half-dozen times – just as one would on the stage. “She’s good,” she said to the coterie around her. “Had me believing `er, just for a moment.” She turned back to Eshe. “But I say yerra brave one to take that. Can yer fight? But of course, just look at yer. We had one last year could keep the fight going for an hour. But in the end . . .” She drew a white finger across her white throat. “Feigned rape’s a bad `un if it goes wrong.”
Oops! Everything warm about Eshe deserted. This was no troupe of actors. Of course she had known such women existed – in Rothi. There were none in Luban. But she hadn’t expected to walk into their den. And, oh gods, that tall, broad, handsome man had directed her here. What must he think of her? She was suddenly burning with embarrassment.
“I am just a traveller, just staying the night,” she said in a voice that to her sounded thin. And she couldn’t stop shaking her head, anxiety mixed with insistent affirmatives.
“Yea yea,” Kilda said. “I’m telling yer girls, this is the best one yet that I’ve seen. She. Is. Good.”
She ought to leave, Eshe knew; she ought to turn round and be gone. But that Pertho had her bag and he was half up the stairs, and she had paid in advance. With solid gold. The Council would want an account of every crumb spent. She’d no choice, she had to stay. But once into that room she would lock it. The very thought of being amongst . . . being trained polite, she suppressed her shudder.
“Just make sure the awis puts the terms into writing,” Kilda called as Eshe trailed after Pertho.
Eshe turned back, head cocked.
“The awis,” Kilda repeated. “Yer know, he `wise in the law’.”
“The judge?” Eshe’s chin dropped a mile.
“Don’t fret, yer wee innocent straw. I didn’t know much when I first came here. From the west, are yer? By yer jaw. They use Javan words like “judge” in the west? Yer look from the west anyway. Dark.”
What could she say? Whatever, it was best to keep to the story already hatched. It would neatly explain her blunder in walking into this place. It would even support that assumption of a western citadel.
“I was born local,” she said. “But most of my life has been west of Chendani.” There was no lie in that, even though Raselstad was south of west.
“Coo!” called another whore. “Yerf walked a long way. Ere, what’d Mikel Lafard promise yer then?”
Kilda laughed. “‘Ere, Judge’s Girl No-Name, welcome to life at Mikel Lafard’s stew-house.”
Eshe prayed her room had a lock to it.
~ ~ ~
Keefer Kalamite ordered his visitor to be taken to the runmen’s hallowed fane, the innermost chamber of Runman House. But even with the bolt shot the chamber gave only the illusion of privacy. If one stood in a certain niche to the side of the stairs, just above, one could hear all that was said. There was, however, a door in that chamber, a door ignored by all. None but he had ever had seen it open. So none but he knew its secret. Indeed, to most minds that door wasn’t there at all as if, in not being used, it had clean disappeared. Kalamite slipped a cord from round his neck. The key was heavy, he kept it hidden. The lock responded as if it were used to turning.
“Be careful on the steps,” he said though his visitor had been there before.
Kalamite reached up a hand. It lit on a switch. He flicked it. Yellow pools of light illumined the grey stone steps though the response was slow. Silently he congratulated himself, as he did every time he flicked the switch; such foresight and ability to have installed the lamps here. Aiya, how tiresome all that fuss with flints and fungi.
At the bottom Kalamite flicked a second switch and – holla! – the stairs disappeared into instant blackness. All that remained visible, and this illumined by a weaker lamp, was a small cubby, stone-walled. Two doors opened from it, both with locks. But Kalamite possessed their keys. Of those doors he knew where one led. Of the other . . . in all his years he had not gone through there. He was building the courage he told himself. Though he might yet find someone . . . expendable to send. He glanced at his visitor. But not today.
“Today,” he said in lowered voice despite the seclusion, “a woman, unknown, entered the close through Strangers Gate.”
The man disgusted Kalamite, rubbing his black-veined in perverse glee. “As I saw, Papa Hadd. A new stew.”
“Nix! You drip-headed jert!” Kalamite clasped his hands lest he up-slapped the man’s head. “You saw her up-close?”
The man’s mouth twisted; he said nothing. He could at least have the courtesy to appear abashed. Kalamite loosed his hands. Such a temptation.
“Aiy,” Kalamite said. “But I saw her close. Passed by her while she waited at the Gardens’ gate; close enough that I saw her face. That is too old to be new at the game. And her flesh is too fresh to be an old hand. Therefore, nix, you jert, the stranger isn’t a stew. Besides – though I made no point of looking – yet cats have bigger bubs than her.”
“Isn’t the size, Papa Hadd; it’s how hard the wart.”
“Matikkas, stop jiggling. And stop doing that with your hands. Your performing days are long ago gone, old man.”
“Aiy, and can’t we tell you’ve never done nought,” the visitor, Old Matikkas, retorted. “Performing! As if that’s all there is. I can look can’t I. And hold. I can bury my-”
“You will bury your nothing in this one. Not yet. I want to know everything about her. Whence she came. What her purpose. Particularly her purpose. Something unwelcome is happening here.”
There was no need to tell Matikkas of the predicted events. Even as a young holde he was a drip-headed lorel. Now as a resident at Schlepan House he was waiting for the final light to go out. It had never been bright. In the meantime, he made an obedient spy. “I want a report,” Kalamite said. “Every day.”
~ ~ ~
Eshe Parlan, Femella
Eshe sat rigid on the bed, hardly daring to breathe, her gaze fixed on the door-latch. Though it lifted the door didn’t open. She’d kept it locked all through the night.
“Hallo in there, Judge’s Girl No-Name.” The call came between the taps. “I say, hallo you in there?”
Eshe held silent. Whoever it was, if she made no response then they might go away.
“I only want to apologise,” said the caller.
Eshe frowned. Who was there here with need to apologise?
“Hallo, Judge’s Girl No-Name. It’s me. Kilda.”
No, it never was; it was a trick. It sounded nothing like the henna-haired whore. The diction was entirely wrong. It was crisp, it was correct. It was not the slur-the-word lingo of a typical hindling. Female, sure, but that was all.
Perhaps it was Pertho’s wife, come to apologise for the mix up. Or – gods! What if it was Mikel Lafard’s wife? But Ryal had made no mention of such a creature. And what would a lafdi be doing in a stewhouse? The housekeeper then. What did the Rothi call them? The dulsind – or should that be kamerlinc?
Yes, that was probably it: it was the housekeeper. But why then did she call Eshe `Judge’s Girl No-Name’. Though, true, Eshe had given no name when booking the room. Pertho hadn’t asked her. Perhaps she could open the door just a crack, just to find out.
The door slammed into her face. Kilda flounced in. Somehow their feet entangled. The next she knew she was painfully breaking the whore’s fall.
“Oh, Blessed Blithe,” Kilda said, back to her feet and offering a hand to help Eshe to hers. “Hundreds of sorries, did I—oh, foo-fie, ey.”
Eshe refused the help. She straightened her clothing. Kilda sat, uninvited, on the bed. “I came to apologise,” she said.
Eshe frowned – which could have meant anything but Kilda interpreted it correctly.
“Yer want me to stew-jaw again? It’s an act, yer wee innocent lafdi-femella.”
Eshe stilled the flinch at Kilda’s use of `femella’. It was just an expression, the way the Luban might call a man `jasckte’. It wasn’t to liken him to Rothi cattle; it was a compliment, saying he was a fearsome hunter: jasckte, because it sounded like jacht, the sailed boats they used for the winter regattas when the water was free of the amphibs. Instead, she frowned.
As if telepathic, Kilda again interpreted correctly. She shook her head like one despairing. “You really are bewildered. What a cloistered life. Best I explain before you spoil your looks with those wrinkles. See, the stews’ hooks are lafarden and keefers and upper servants, so they have no desire to rumple a lafdi – not even one who talks like she might be. What! She might be his sister, born out of House. So, all stews are hindlings. You understand better? But we’re not really hindlings. We most are from the citadel Houses. Just not this citadel.”
Eshe slowly nodded, though she might need to sit and think more about this. She continued to frown and to stare. Kilda looked older this morning without her paint. She had wrinkles deep around her grey-green eyes. And now Eshe could see, in the stray wisps, the stew’s hair wasn’t that ridiculous red-orange but a dull ashen blonde.
“You came to apologise?” she prompted.
“I intended no insult when I mistook you.” Kilda insisted.
Eshe nodded again, this time acceptance. But what an odd situation this was, that this Rothi lafdi, playing the hindling, should apologise to this hindling who was a Luban femella in disguise. Boddy would have laughed. But why would a lafdi become a stew? Eshe could imagine no awful condition that might drive one to it.
“I was jawing last night to Mikel Lafard,” Kilda said, “and he says he knows nothing of you. So it seems you really are a traveller and I apologise for not believing. Most impolite of me; I am chastised.”
Eshe nodded more. “Let me be clear on this. Mikel Lafard is the awis. He is really the judge?” She could not imagine her father becoming involved in something like this.
“But of course he is,” Kilda laughed, a rippling deep chuckle. “Who else runs a stew-house? What do you folk do in the west? Whittle all night? Come, sit,” she ordered and patted the bed beside her. “And do not object for I warrant I have higher status than you. So, listen and learn if you think to survive in the east. Does a lafard want his servants bulging? Does he want wee rascals running around all smacked with his looks? Does he want to lose his best workers to childbirth and, sadly to say, to death? So he has to stick it to someone other. Enter we stews, literally/ And since the awis is charged with keeping the peace – boom-shag-a-boom so to speak. So how do you do it in the west?”
Eshe tried not to gulp. But how was she to answer? It wasn’t ever done in Luban. But no, that wasn’t the full truth. It was supposed to be kept within marriage – after all, what other incentive was there to wed, though it was a poor one when marriage was a seal for life. So the `boom-shag-a-boom’ so to speak, tended to spill into various encounters in various places with fingers-crossed that no baby resulted. And there were remedies from the herbalists for that. Eshe suddenly laughed and had to stifle it. And she had thought Rothi stews were a boiled meat concoction. Alas, the school curriculum had left much untouched.
“Kilda, with my cloistered life . . . well, in truth I know nothing of it.”
“Are you saying you have not ever been dinged?”
Eshe shook her head, looking wide-eyed and innocent. It was not quite the truth; she thought of Boddy.
“So where in the west are you from? I’m from Citadel Kefski – that’s to the north of here, beyond Teskret Marshes.”
If Kilda was from the north she was unlikely to know much of the west. Eshe thanked Jilli for the care taken in cobbling her story together for she now could answer without hesitation. “Citadel Parlani. My mother took me there when I was a wee one.”
She and Jilli had sat long into the night conjuring supporting details. Why would a mother take her daughter with her yet leave her son behind? And why did she leave? The final story, after many false starts, had her mother fleeing because her husband beat her, because the baby – Eshe – looked nothing like him. No, she, the baby, had looked more like the manse manager, aka the bachelor. And after all that Kilda asked her nothing of reasons.
“What did you do there?” she asked. “How did you serve? Or are you a lafdi with some romantic story? A runaway?”
This part had taken as long to decide. The trouble was she had few skills that would transfer to Rothi, at least not as a woman. She would be next to useless as a napmaid, lacking the needed needle skills. And she had insufficient knowledge of Rothi foods to be a cook. She might have made an able dulsind, overseeing the female staff, or kamerlinc to oversee the cleaning and presentation of the public rooms. But both these positions usually went to women of noble families – which she supposedly was not. That also ruled out the lafdi-lai, who tended to be from the same citadel family, there being many a secret for a lady’s lady to learn. And, since she was not the lowest of lows, the hini, to be assigned the foulest of work, emptying the po-pots and such, what else could she be but a moldkin, a kitchen maid. At least she was capable of peeling roots and boiling up water. And she had the strength to manhandle the cauldrons.
“I was a moldkin,” she admitted and quickly added, “but training to be the cook. That as yet was my mother.”
“In the lafard-legere’s household?”
“Hap-an-hope. No. No, it was only the balgerof’s.”
“Grim,” Kilda said.
Eshe nodded. Oh the squeals of horror that day at school they learnt of the balgerof. The `administrator of security’; decapitations and long spells in dank dungeons, most un-Luban-like treatments of transgressors. But not every citadel employed such a man; often the keefer of the citadel-watch doubled as him.
“Is it a wonder you ran away,” Kilda said.
“No but I didn’t.”
Kilda cocked her henna-dyed head.
Eshe stood and paced – designed so she could keep her back to the stew. For here was the biggest lie yet.
“I had to return here.” She had practiced this over, it must ring loud with veracity. “See, my mother died two days into Ram-and-Lamb’s and her last words were to come here and seek out my brother. We heard he’s an holde at the citadel. He’s to be my sponsor and find me a job.”
“A holde at this citadel, at Lecheni? But he came a long way from Parlani.”
“No.” Eshe laughed and shook her head. “I said I was local born.”
“Ey, so you did. An’ Blithe be with you with the finding – or do they hold to the Runman Five in the west? Though what you think your brother can do for you . . . You wee innocent straw, you would have done better to stay where you were.”
“Oh no, I-I could not. Not with my mother dead. The Sivator, well . . . ” She left Kilda to fill in the possibilities.
“Ey, you poor wee innocent. So what is his name, your brother?”
Kilda spluttered. Eshe cringed. She felt that the truest reaction, not knowing if Kilda had stopped a laugh or exclaimed in despair.
“And Nikon rules the day,” she said, shaking her head. “Alas, Lafdi-Femella – and you have yet to give me your name.”
“Ashlan.” It was close.
“Well then, Ashlan from Parlani, this is not your day. I regret to say, but alas your brother has been missing from here since . . .Ey, when was it? Some time during the Rainmaker’s.”
“Oh.” Eshe put a whole heart of disappointment into that word, and again sat on the bed, her head in her hands, feigning distress. “Do you know where he went?” She ought to have been one of Boddy’s players, with her feeble trembling voice.
“Ashlan, now would he be missing if anyone knew? No. You served a balgerof, you must know it; he’d be dead. Breken Lafard searched but . . .”
“I must ask his fellow watchmen, they might know,” Eshe said, voice tight with hope. She wanted to laugh. The Rothi Nikon might be against her (alias Verth the Varlet, or Murky as Boddy named him, the darkest of demons) but to Eshe it seemed the Avatar guided her, inching her closer to her goal. But she must keep all hint of glee to herself. “Something might have happened and he might have told them – men do that with their fellows, you know.”
“No, Ashlan. His fellow holden had nothing to tell – not even aside to Dryastil Hadd.”
“Dryastil Hadd, is he Ryal’s ledhere?”
“Was. Stup is more likely his hadd-leef now. But listen, Ashlan, despite I owe you nothing but apologies yet . . . Oh, you with your innocence, I’ve taken a liking to you. These next three days – Medusa’s Curse, every stew’s blessing – I’m free from duties. What say I help you with your asking, huh? Only you alone and a stranger, you’re bound to blunder, then you’ll be serving the balgerof again in a totally different manner.”
“That is . . . ” it was unexpected “. . . most eagerly accepted.”
“Then perhaps you can pay me – with some of those jewels.”
Eshe giggled, she thought that convincing. “They’re not real jewels, only glass.”
“This one isn’t.” Kilda’s fingers closed over a red stone weighting a corner of Eshe’s head-shawl. Smaller chips of the same red were mixed amongst the tiny-bell-trimming. “You have several garnets here, and emeralds too. Gifts were they, from a grateful balgerof?”
For the first time since Kilda plonked herself down on the bed beside her, Eshe felt flustered. And that served her right for accepting without inspecting. She would have known the difference had she looked. But what of it? Gifts were common between masters and servants. Yes but not to a moldkin.
“I didn’t know. They are real, you say? My beads were my mother’s, a gift from the lafdi.”
“No need to fret,” Kilda patted her hand. “I believe you.”
So Kilda might, but how had Ryal come by them?
~ ~ ~